American Impressions, Chapter 37: Kansas
Ruins of the Plains
The house sits on a rise some 40 feet from the road. Aside from a huddle of cottonwoods, many of them dead, the house is alone against miles of empty prairie. It’s a ruin, a sight so common on the Great Plains that no one pays it attention. The people of Hill City _ the 12-street metropolis and county seat three miles east _ have forgotten its existence, the way they’ve forgotten that a town called Gettysburg once existed around the house. Their own town is halfway to Gettysburg’s fate, like hundreds of towns from the Texas panhandle to the Dakotas. But people here are used to transience. It’s the Plains’ fifth season.
I park the car in an overgrown alley next to the house’s windmill, which has lost its metallic petals, and look for a way in. The grass is knee-high in places, combed in plush layers of dead yellow in others. I’m thinking rattlesnakes. But a ruin is a beguiling thing, a physical memory that radiates intimate history even when it has nothing to do with your past.
I keep my eyes on the ground, cross the former yard and step onto the concrete porch. I can judge age better on faces than on walls, but these walls of yellow limestone have been kept together by at least three generations of cement. Some of it, the older kind, limns the stones with fine care. More recent applications are splotched on impatiently. The stone itself has turned pink, oxidizing like canyon walls. The screenless screen door is open. So is the main door, which is stuck on a thick layer of mud.
Inside, light rains through the roof. The windows have long been exploded. I expect to see signs of former life, such as a piece or two of furniture, a skeletal bookshelf. There is nothing of the sort except for the kitchen sink, a makeshift table missing half a plank, a few electrical sockets of 1950s vintage, and _ like the concrete outside _ many shredding layers of wallpaper of faded tulips and wildflower, waffle-like golden squares and rectangles, and then patterns only a geologist could discern. Whoever left, left a very long time ago.
The floor is thick with mud and pebbles, riddled with holes and soft enough in places that it almost gives. I step carefully. In a more solid area of the living room I try to swipe the mud away with my shoes to see the floor beneath. The act triggers a memory I hadn’t expected in the middle of Kansas. Several years ago, my brother returned to Beirut for a visit. I’d asked him to videotape everything he saw for me, especially his visit to our old apartment in the city, which also had become a ruin. Camcorder in hand, he taped his walk across the empty house, and when he reached the bedroom we shared when we were boys, he swiped his foot across the floor to try to bring out the patterns embedded in the marble. A lot of mud and dust had accumulated there, but the familiar patterns of brown and yellow emerged intact like colors of my childhood, and that moment alone made the sight of our ruined house more bearable.
I try to imagine whose colors are beneath the mud in the house in Kansas. The mud is too thick, too dangerous to pry for long. But I have to know something about this house, why it has survived here this long, why it was here in the first place. Why it was abandoned if, built of stone, it was meant to last.
It isn’t true that in small towns people know everything about everyone, past and present. They only seem to know, for being such able fabulists, which is why a brief stop for coffee and questions in Hill City turned into three days of chasing answers. I didn’t get all my answers, and anyway the chase is always better than the find. But if I wanted to begin understanding the Plains’ natural cycle of ruins sooner or later replacing life, I only had to look at Hill City, an archeological dig in the making with historical seams that reach west to the limestone house, and east to Nicodemus, the last surviving all-black town of the Great Plains.
“When I was single I used to park out there, in the ‘60s,” Bob Boyd says of the old limestone house, abandoned even then. “It was handy. You never seemed to get stuck out there. You could pull out back and no one would bother you. I never got bushwhacked there.”
Boyd edits and co-owns the Hill City Times, a weekly. We’re having coffee at the Pomeroy Inn, run by Don and Mary Worcester. Mary couldn’t remember anyone living in the house going back to the ‘50s, when she was in high school. She had called Boyd and summoned him over, thinking he might know who had last owned the place. Like everyone else I asked in Hill City, Boyd didn’t know. The story of the town _ of Western Kansas away from the interstate corridor _ is all about people leaving.
“We’re all losing population,” Boyd says. “Every town thinks it’s in trouble. There are no jobs, and the families are smaller.” Just as western towns died in the 19 th and early 20 th centuries when the railroad bypassed them, towns like Hill City are dying now that the Interstate passes 26 miles to the south. Hill City was a rich oil town, thriving on discoveries of wells in the 1930s and the 1950s, then on the price boom of the early ‘80s. Prices have plummeted since, provoking an out-migration as severe as the one provoked by the ongoing farm crisis.
Between 1989 and 1998, Graham County, where Hill City is located, went from a population of 3,808 to 3,105, an 18 percent decline. (The population was more than 8,000 in the 1920s.) Hill City’s population declined from 1,971 to 1,650. At last year’s census, the county had just 301 children ages 0-9, and only 193 people between the ages of 20 and 29. Those who don’t leave tend to be older, to have some of the lucky jobs in town, or to be widows sustained by Social Security.
It’s the same story all over the Great Plains. In 279 counties across six states, totaling nearly 470,000 square miles (or 16 percent of the lower 48 states), births accounted for 1 percent of the nation’s totals in the last decade. It’s in a region that already averages just six people per square mile. Frontier status used to mean territories with fewer than six people per square mile. By that benchmark, Kansas has more such “frontier” counties today than it did in 1890.
Writing in The Atlantic in 1893, E.V. Smalley decried homesteaders’ habit of living in “the dreary monotony of isolation” from each other, on their 160 acres instead of in villages, as did farmers in Europe, and projected a blend of insanity and “economic weakness” for those who persisted in their “crusty individuality.” He concluded: “There is but one remedy for the dreariness of farm life on the prairies: the isolated farmhouse must be abandoned, and the people must draw together in villages.”
Smalley’s advice was heeded to the extreme. Not only farmsteads, but whole towns burgeoned and disappeared as they searched for a center, a reason to be beyond speculation or the hope of making it on the land. By one account, Kansas had at least 2,500 village-like places that were settled and abandoned between 1852 and 1912. Gettysburg, outside of Hill City, was just one of those, and the limestone house its last marker.
At Hill City’s Abstract Office, a private repository of property archives, I find the homestead claim to the land where the limestone house sits. It was filed by a John Mitchell on Oct. 15, 1883. He got the deed to the 160 acres—with a signature by one of President Chester Arthur’s secretaries—on Dec. 20, 1884. The homestead changed hands several times until William Ellsworth got the title in 1901. It has been in the Ellsworth family since. The current holders have it in trust. There was no way to know when the house was abandoned, or why. Its owners live in Salina, two hours east, and have their annual $320.24 tax bill forwarded to an attorney there. When I called, the attorney was vacationing in Ireland.
Bob Boyd is like the old land speculators of the 19 th century, selling the image of a good future for his town on optimism, whatever the contradicting realities may be. Oil prices will rebound and bring back the drills, he says. City folks will get sick of Denver and Kansas City and move back to the quiet of the prairie. Retirees will get sick of Phoenix and Florida and move here, too.
He invites me to his Rotary Club meeting the next day, where the 20 members, told of having “someone from the East” among them, sing “Home on the Range” for me. Moments earlier the school superintendent had reminded me of a study that was, in fact, advocating the return of the prairie to the roaming buffalo.
The featured speaker is Wyman Stuchlick, a City Council member and the assistant football coach of the Hill City High School Ringnecks. The season is about to start that Friday. He talks of the team as seriously as if the town’s future depends on it. He wants support. He wants spirit. He’s not happy that only 26 boys out of 39, and only six freshmen, turned out for the team. He says nothing about declining enrollment, which is what concerns the superintendent, but says kids these days are going soft, they’re fearful of breaking a sweat, they’re too pampered by their parents. Like “Home on the Range,” a romantic vision of the past persists, entirely divorced from the present.
”When Pat and I played football,” Stuchlick says, pointing to an old-time farmer at my table, “we sat in that John Deere tractor without any air conditioning. We didn’t even know what humidity was. These days kids go home, they sit in front of the television or the computer and play these computer games, eee-eee-eee.” Still, he predicts that the Ringnecks will beat Ellis, 27-14.
Stuchlick and I take a ride around town afterward and he points out, plot after empty plot, the places where the hardware store used to be, the mortuary, the grocery store, the ice plant, and a run of obscured storefronts where the drug store, the liquor store and the pool hall used to be. Then he shows me the many houses that were literally picked up and moved to town when the farmland started emptying out. He himself had left town after high school, fighting in Korea and settling in California. He decided to return with his wife four years ago, when his father died, and to semi-retire here.
At football practice later, Stuchlick stands by and lets the head coach do all the shouting. He does plenty. His voice is the loudest I’ve heard in Hill City in two days. Drill after drill it barks, threatens, cusses, damns. This is not “where seldom is heard a discouraging word,” as the song goes. Playing computer games seems more civilized. But students later tell me that if they hope to be involved in any sort of activity after school, it’s sports or nothing, although drinking is the favored weekend pastime.
The town’s bowling alley burned a few years ago, the town cinema collapsed last year, and cruising Main Street’s half mile more than one night a week gets old. Taking abuse from a coach breaks the monotony. No wonder most students anticipate graduation like a deliverance. “The town keeps getting smaller every year,” says Nelson Pratt, a junior with his eyes set on MIT. It’s nobody’s fault, least of all the students’, who are as much to blame for the decline of the football program as they are for Hill City’s—which is to say, not at all. When the county appraiser tells me that the limestone ruin outside of town is just one of 25 abandoned stone houses in Graham County, I’m reminded of how the historian Daniel Boorstin described the feeling of driving through ghost settlements of the west—“The shell has remained while the spirit has fled.”
Four days later, Ellis beats Hill City, 30-14.
When the land speculator W.R. Hill platted Hill City in the late 1770s, he entered into a partnership with six black settlers and founded the all-black town of Nicodemus—two months before finding a site 12 miles east of Hill City. After an initial struggle, Nicodemus grew full of “Exodusters,” as the 40,000 blacks who left the sharecropping South to try their luck as homesteaders in the West were known. By 1880, Nicodemus had a population of 400 (it peaked at 595 in 1910). It had two newspapers, churches, stores, a school and one of the first post offices run by blacks in the nation. Many black towns were founded on the prairie around that time. Only Nicodemus has survived, although its spirit, too, has fled. Its population of 35 lives, mostly, in Nicodemus Villa, an apartment complex that may be empty in 10 or 15 years.
”The youngest persons here are in their 40s, and there’s only a couple of them,” says Angela Tompkins, a Nicodemus descendant and historian who lives with her husband in nearby Bogue. “The rest of them are between 70 and 90. I don’t see anybody moving back. It’s sad.”
And every last weekend in July, Nicodemus holds the Emacipation Celebration, a huge family reunion that brings together the Nicodemus diaspora from across the nation. Tompkins is only one of thousands of Nicodemus descendants. The rest of the time, the town and its landmarks continue to join the ever-growing community of ruins on the Plains.
”You know what would revive this place?” Tompkins says as we drive past the old Van Duvall farm, a handsome ruin of wood gone gray. “Disney.”
Tompkins speaks glowingly of a historic theme park like the one Disney tried to build near Manassas, Va., in the mid-1990s until a public outcry foiled the plan. “The whole theme could be the West,” Tompkins says. “It would work here. Of course it would change part of the landscape. But it would give an economic shot, economic viability, to a whole lot of people. Custer, Wild Bill Hicock, the 7 th Cavalry, Buffalo Bill, Nicodemus, the Pioneers, they were all here.”
They were all here, and they are all gone. Including the “whole lot of people” Tompkins imagines are still there. Like the buffalo and the elk, they, too, are gone, or going. Why insist on reversing the trend? Why even presume it to be such a bad thing? I am always amazed by this need, this indomitable America impulse, to seek out “economic viability” wherever there seems to be a void of development, of growth, of what is narrowly defined as prosperity. Ever since Lewis and Clark imagined the river-cliffs of the Missouri to resemble “the remains of ruins of elegant buildings,” we should have taken the hint that “those scenes of visionary enchantment” were the prairie’s measure rather than our attempts to park them up, settle them, revitalize them.
The answer to the mystery of the old limestone ruin on the other side of Hill City, a scene of visionary enchantment in its own right, was staring me in the face: We have room for emptiness.
KANSAS IN BRIEF
Total area: 82,282 sq. miles (rank: 15)
Population (1997): 2,594,840 (rank: 32)
State capital: Topeka
Economy: Manufacturing, services, agriculture.
Nickname & Motto: Sunflower State; To the stars through difficulties.
Entered union: Jan. 29, 1861 (34 th).
Notable facts: At the end of last year, the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas said plummeting Kansas oil production and record low prices would cost the state’s industry $400 million and more than 3,000 jobs in 1998. “What we’re witnessing is a collapse in the Kansas oil industry,” said Lee Gerhard, Survey director and state geologist. “New drilling is all but non-existent, and many producers are slowing or stopping production, hoping for higher prices.” The value of Kansas oil production in 1998 was to be about $342 million, down from $742 million in 1997, an unprecedented 53 percent drop. The industry employed about 6,900 people in 1997.
Kansas in quotes: “Our selections have been made, our editorials written, our proof read, sitting on the ground with a big shingle on our knee for a table. Think of this, ye editors, in your easy chairs and well furnished sanctums, and cease to grumble.”—From the first issue of the Kansas Weekly Herald, the first English-language newspaper published in Kansas or Nebraska, on Sept. 15, 1854. The following February, the paper had a circulation of 2,970.
* Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains,” published in 1989, is a greatly readable and informative history of the Plains that mixes fact, legend and contemporary observations.
* “Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854-1890,” by Paul Wallace Gates (University of Oklahoma Press) is a more scholarly treatment of the defining period in the history of western land-grabs, including the elimination of Indian title to the land and the emergence of homesteading.
* In the next few years the University of Nebraska will publish “The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains,” a compendium of 28 interpretive essays and 2,000 articles, edited by David J. Wishart. A more definite publication date was not available.
* Hill City: history.cc.ukans.edu/~hersite
* Nicodemus: www.nps.gov/nico